Behind its militaristic façade, Kim Jong-il's North Korea was a state in retreat. It is his son and heir, Kim Jong-Un, who faces a real challenge.

“Yuri Irsenovich Kim,” wrote the anonymous Soviet bureaucrat who filled out paperwork on the birth of a child in the small fishing village of Vyatskyoe in the freezing February of 1941.

He would later come to be known by other names: “the General,” “Dear Leader,” and in the 2009 constitution written to formalise his authority, “Supreme Leader.” In 2002, an official biography claimed that his birth was foretold by a swallow, heralded by a double rainbow, and greeted by a new star in the heavens.

Kim Jong-il died on Monday, while travelling by rail: in one of the minor ironies of history, one of the world's most ruthless leaders was terrified of flying.

In his years in power, North Korea emerged as nuclear power — but also lost hundreds of thousands of lives in one of the most savage famines in modern history.

His son and successor, Kim Jong-un, barely in his 30s, now faces the challenge of running a regime that has the military capacities needed to obliterate its neighbourhood, but whose own survival is very far from assured.

Reputation for being ruthless

Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il's father, commanded the 1st battalion of the Soviet army's 88 brigade, made up of Chinese and Korean refugees from Japanese imperialism. Following the Soviet Union's triumph in the Second World War, the Soviet ruler Joseph Stalin searched around for someone to rule the Korean territories it had captured from Japan. Kim Il-sung was, in the words of the former Soviet intelligence officer Leonard Vassin, “created from zero.”

For a man with no political experience or legitimacy, Kim Il-sung didn't do badly: he saw his country through the bitter war of 1951-1953, set off by North Korea's attempt to capture the south. Helped by Soviet aid, Kim Il-sung also ensured that North Korea grew faster than its now-vibrant southern neighbour in much of the 1950s and 1960s.

Kim Jong-il cut his teeth as head of North Korea's intelligence service, soon developing a reputation for ruthlessness. He is alleged to have been personally responsible for the 1983 bombing of the South Korean mission in Yangon, which killed 17 visiting South Korean officials, and the mid-air bombing of a Korean Air flight in 1987, which killed all 115 on board. He also set up a network of front-businesses which brought hard currency for the cash-strapped state — among other things, by selling weapons to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

North Korea is often referred to as a socialist state. It more closely resembled a messianic religious cult — perhaps drawn from the family's pre-revolutionary roots in the Presbyterian church.

In an effort to ensure his autonomy from both the Soviet Union and China, Kim Il-sung propagated the ideology of juche, or self-reliance. First propagated in a December 1955 speech, “On Eliminating Dogmatism and Formalism,” juche proposed not just economic autarky but also ideological and cultural independence. It entailed, among other things, the creation of a remarkable national myth, claiming that the Kim family's ancestors had fought the United States gunships which had arrived to open the Hermit Kingdom to free trade in the 19th century.

Kim Jong-il's manifesto on juche formally repudiated Marxism-Leninism in 1996; the preamble to the 2009 constitution left out all mention of socialism, referring only to the ruling family.

Neither Kim Jong-il's temperament nor tastes were socialist. Konstantin Pulikovsky, a Russian emissary who travelled with Kim Jong-il by train on a state visit, told the British Broadcasting Corporation that live lobster were airlifted on to it each day. Kenji Fujimoto, a Japanese national who served as Kim's Jong-il's personal sushi chef, on a salary of $4.2 million a year, wrote in his memoirs that he was often sent abroad on expenses-paid trips to procure delicacies — among them, Czech beer, Danish pork, Thai papayas, Uzbek caviar, and, improbably, McDonalds hamburgers.

Last year, South Korean intelligence released satellite photographs documenting a Rs. 8.2-billion building frenzy: a mansion for his son in Pyongyang's élite District 15, a villa with an undersea viewing area in Songdowon, and a spa resort in North Hamgyong district, complete with a private railway line.

The vanishing state

Kim Jong-il's rise to power in 1994, following his father's death, came at the worst time possible: bereft of Soviet aid, the economy went into a nosedive, setting off a massive famine. North Koreans began illegally growing food on private patches in the mountains, setting up small shops to produce textiles, and smuggling goods from the increasingly vibrant centres of industry that had begun to spring up across the Yalu river in China. Tens of thousands even crossed into China illegally, to work in factories and small workshops.

Even though Beijing stepped in to fill the vacuum the Soviet Union had left, its aid was modest: the real cash came from illegal trade with the flourishing Chinese cities across the border.

Behind the militaristic façade, the South Korea-based Russian scholar Andrei Lankov observed in a thoughtful essay written earlier this year that the state steadily lost authority. In the last two decades, Dr. Lankov wrote, the state lost “its ability (perhaps also its will) to control the daily activities of its subjects as well as how they made a living.”

The American scholar Patrick Chovanec, who visited some of North Korea's least-accessible regions last summer, wrote: “One thing that really surprised me was the number of luxury sedans and SUVs, brands like BMWs and Mercedes, on the city streets.” “Obviously,” he concluded, “somebody has cash.”

In North Korea, Kim Jong-il has left behind, formal power still lies with a caste of military officers and bureaucrats — but economic influence now rests with a new semi-legal merchant class. “North Korean society,” Dr. Lankov observed, “has become defined by one's relationship to money, not by one's relationship to the bureaucracy.

“Money talks,” and for better or worse, in North Korea, money talks ever louder.”

The crisis ahead

Kim Jong-un, formally designated as his father's successor last year and now North Korea's leader, probably understands that fact well: guided by a clique made up of his father's widow, sister and brother-in-law, is in serious trouble.

Earlier this year, the World Food Programme (WFP) launched an emergency operation to reach 3.5 million of North Korea's most-in-need, following what it described as “one of the most bitter winters in living memory, and a squeeze on commercial imports and bilateral food assistance.” It said that upwards of 6 million people would need food aid to survive the year.

The WFP estimated that stocks in the government's public distribution system were almost down to zero; in June, cereal rations were down to about 150 grams per person per day — a quarter of what the government aimed to provide.

Key to Kim Jong-un's success will be finding a solution to its nuclear stand-off with the world — and thus opening the route to an easing of sanctions, and investment that could stave off the gradual disintegration of the North Korean state.

In 1993, North Korea began to expand its nuclear activities — claiming, at first, that it needed atomic power to compensate for chronic energy shortages brought about by the end of Soviet patronage. Faced with international pressure to roll back its nuclear programme, which was correctly believed to mask military objectives, it signed an agreement in 1994. Later, however, Kim Jong-il admitted to having produced nuclear weapons after the treaty was signed; in 2006, North Korea conducted a test demonstrating it could build a rudimentary strategic weapon.

Benazir Bhutto, Pakistan's former Prime Minister, is alleged to have passed on key data for North Korea's nuclear bomb through 1990-1996, in return for missile knowhow. Former President Pervez Musharraf and Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz acknowledged in 2005 that the nuclear scientist A.Q. Khan had provided centrifuges and their designs to North Korea — a charge he now denies.

Efforts to negotiate an end to North Korea's nuclear programme have been stalled since 2009, when the country walked out of multilateral negotiations to protest the international condemnation that followed its test of a long-range missile — widely read as a threat to Japan.

In recent years, it has also clashed repeatedly with its southern neighbour, sinking a corvette and shelling an island in acts that experts say were intended to place pressure on the international community to ease sanctions.

China continues to give economic assistance to North Korea — fearful of a massive flow of economic refugees if it collapses, and also angered by continued United States military aid to Taiwan. In recent months, Chinese companies have been considering plans to invest in North Korean free trade zones.

Nonetheless, impatience with Kim Jong-il has been growing; Chinese scholars and media had become increasingly critical of the North Korean regime's eccentric behaviour. South Korea is among China's largest trading partners, and Beijing has no desire to see an economically catastrophic regional conflict.

It is improbable North Korea will be willing to give up its nuclear weapons — earlier this year, the official news agency quoted a foreign office official as arguing that the case of the deposed Libyan ruler Muammar Qadhafi illustrated “the truth that one should have power to defend peace.”

The pressure for a deal that would end sanctions is thus growing each day. Kim Jong-il's sunset, and the son-rise in North Korea, thus mark a time of great regional peril — but also, possibly, a new opening for peace.

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